Before Airfoil and before General Motors, cars were a novelty and considered highly dangerous—even suspect. The logic was that a driver of a carriage was always safer because there were “two heads” involved—that of the driver and of the horse. Each was a fail-safe for the other. Removing one of those “heads” was akin to removing logic.
Enter 2014 with GM’s announcement of the availability of cars that can drive partially in an auto-pilot mode and that can exchange speed and safety data with similarly equipped vehicles. Seems like the dreams implanted in our minds through Knight Rider, Batman, and other movies are about to become real. But not without resistance.
From city hall walls to the floor of the U.S. Senate naysayers and advocates of technology alike are jockeying for a voice in this exciting debate. Some of the contentious points revolve around whether an autonomous or semi-autonomous car can navigate city streets that are replete with human fly-by decisions, to the more philosophical questions of whether robot cars can be taught to make empathetic, moral decisions when an accident is imminent and unavoidable.
Currently, one of the closest technologies to autonomy is cruise control, which is great at reducing speed (the largest factor in vehicle accidents according to NHTSA). Another factor in accidents is (no surprise) distracted driving (use of cell phones, texting, talking to passengers). So, wouldn’t a completely autonomous-driving vehicle that allows you to focus on your call be safer?
As we enter this new (or not so new) area, we see traces of crisis communication in calming people’s fears, as well as a healthy dose of consumer education. Our tips:
1. Know from where the fear stems. Acknowledge it and thoughtfully present the research.
This is the age of the customer. Consumer reviews count—a lot. Feedback and concerns are taken into consideration by peers more than ever. This is a prime opportunity for automakers to gain valuable firsthand insights from their customers, average American drivers. As consumers become more influential when it comes to product development, their thoughts should be harnessed through primary research in the form of consumer surveys. These tools acknowledge their value as customers and glean valuable data into their concerns. It demonstrated how we as communicators and innovators understand their concerns and desire.
2. Listen. Acknowledge. Address. With credible research the logic of the human head can be convinced.
Fear comes from the unknown. Data gives us the power as communicators to influence a perception, and make change through education. A thought leadership program or myth busting campaign with the aim of educating consumers on the top misconceptions around autonomous-driving technology in the form of a blog or vlog can proactively set the stage for arming consumers with facts and education to put them better at ease when it comes to new ideas and innovation.
3. Assemble and plan. Prepare for questions, acknowledge debate will occur (and may not always be civil).
We know that before anyone even gets in to test drive a vehicle, it starts with effective a good conversation. Be it in the dealership or through an online forum, it’s what gets your current and potential customers interested and engaged. The words “crisis communications” don’t have to mean planning for or reacting to the worst case scenarios. Anticipate the most difficult questions and feedback before you need to react to them. Have a plan with factual, educational messages in place to proactively and responsively address them. Leverage critics as resources to inspire action and change in perception. Befriend journalists and bloggers, especially the skeptics, as go-to sources for feedback and opportunities to create influencer advocacy, and a change in opinion.
With these things in mind, GM and the world’s top automotive manufacturers can help lead consumers closer to mass adoption of autonomous vehicle technology.